2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Genre: African-American Literature, Experimental, Literary Fiction

Narrative  Style: First person, Main narrative told in flashback

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1952

Synopsis: The unnamed narrator lives underground in a strange cell with dozens of lightbulbs everywhere and stolen electricity. He relates to the reader all the ways in which he has become an invisible man and then tells the story of how he came to be there. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup: Author Edition.

I admit, I thought I’d enjoy this more than I did. It was a much harder read than I expected. I found the style stodgy and  the narrator irritating. The overall moral message and the relevance of the story today are what kept me reading rather than any interest in character development or exciting plot points.

The narrative describes the unnamed narrator’s progress towards invisibility. Everyone he encounters seems to have an opinion of him and his usefulness – no one is able to see him as merely a person. From fellow blacks like Dr Bledsoe who accuse him of bringing the race into disrepute, to the white men of The Brotherhood who use the discontent of Harlem’s blacks to their own end, to the white woman who requests he rape her when he seduces her, everyone has an opinion of what black men should be like. And with each encounter, the narrator loses a little more of his sense of self.

At the all black college he attends, the narrator is trusted to show around one of the white trustees, Mr Norton,  around the college. The idea, of course, is to show the best of the college but when Norton requests that he show him the old slave quarters behind the college, he feels he cannot say no because it would be worse to deny the request. The principal of the college, Dr Bledsoe was always deferential to the white trustees but the narrator had not realised that that was an act for the white men and did not represent what Bledsoe actually felt. At the old quarters, they encounter Jim Trueblood who has managed to impregnate both his wife and his daughter in his sleep. This shocked Norton who demands a drink. The only bar nearby is full of prostitutes and mental patients and shocks Norton even more. Bledsoe, expels him for bringing not only  the college into disrepute but the entire race. This is his first lesson. There are many to follow.

One of the things I like about this novel is it is unsparing in its criticism of all groups. The narrator falls in with The Brotherhood (a reference to the Communist Party, I guess) and at first he feels comfortable there. He extends the influence of The Brotherhood within the black community in Harlem. However, when a fellow Black member of The Brotherhood, Tod Clifton, is shot when resisting arrest, The Brotherhood refuse to support the idea of a funeral because Clifton was selling offensive sambo dolls on his arrest. This, they feel, is more important than a black man being shot by police. They tell the narrator that they know what is best for the black community. The narrator realises that they have been using him all along.

However, there is also criticism of Raz the Exhorter who represents Black Nationalism. He suggests that anyone who works with white people is a traitor and towards the end of the novel calls for the narrator to be lynched because of his work with the Brotherhood. The narrator suggests that both sides are as blind as each other.

The extended flashback ends when the narrator is being chased by two white men, he falls down a manhole and they pull the lid over him, trapping him. This is the true start of his life as an invisible man. However, he decides that he has to return to society to speak for the many people in a similar plight.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book because it made me think (and it also made me depressed at how little these themes have changed) but it wasn’t an easy read nor was it always enjoyable.

 

 

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Faggots – Larry Kramer

Genre: LGBT,  Modern Classic

Narrative Style: Third person from multiple points of view

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1978

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Fred Lemish is about to be forty. He is growing tired of the constant round of parties, clubs, dancing and fucking that occupies his life when he is not working. He is in love with Dinky Adams – as is most of New York, it transpires – and is desperate for his return so that he can cement their relationship. The novel describes the gay scene in New York and on Fire Island with no holds barred. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition.

On the front of my copy of Faggots by Larry Kramer, it proclaims that the book will be “disturbing, enlightening, compassionate, explicit, uninhibited, outrageous…” It then goes not to say that no one can be neutral about it. I admit, I thought this sounded a bit over the top. However, as I read I realised all these things were true. Especially that last bit. Faggots, it seems, is a book you either love or you hate.

The novel captures a moment in gay history when sodomy laws in the USA had been revoked in a lot of states and gay men were tasting more freedom than previous generations but before AIDS devastated the gay community. Sex is everywhere, male bodies are on display and I lost count of the different types of drugs that were mentioned. It describes unbridled hedonism. There is a lot of sex in this novel. Some of it is very funny and some of it is very kinky. Certainly, it is easy to appreciate the sense of freedom  – what else was there to do but have sex. There was no need to settle down or have a relationship. Why do that, when there are all these beautiful bodies?

Fred Lemish wants more. He is in love with Dinky Adams. At the beginning of the novel, he is out of town and Fred is waiting for his return as he hopes it will be the start of a proper relationship. However, the reader soon realises that Dinky is much in demand- every other character seems to be also waiting for his return. We quickly realise Fred is heading for a fall. Fred is definitely ready to settle down. He wants more than just sex and bodies. In some ways, he is like Gatsby – in love with love as much as the completely inappropriate object of his affections. Dinky does not want to settle down and Fred is left alone again at the end.

The novel this most reminds me of is Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance – another novel from 1978 with Gatsby overtones. Both novels critique the narrowness of the perceptions of what gay life could be within this scene. They also both show the interchangeability of bodies and the hollowness of relating only to the physical. Winnie Heinz – also known as The Winston Man, model for Winston Cigarettes takes a fall from a parapet while in a drug addled state and dies when he hits the dancefloor; his place is quickly taken by a younger, fitter version.

It may be for this reason that Kramer has so many characters in this novel. There are dozens and dozens of men, some given little more than a paragraph, some mentioned but not fleshed out and some returned to again and again. It was difficult to keep track of who was who, who’d had who and what everyone’s particular fetish was. Even Fred has trouble keeping track of who he has slept with. Even when he has noted that a man was hot and he would like to see them again, he can’t remember his name. He had spent a year with “a faceless group of sex objects.”

It is this endless list of characters and the overly convoluted state of Kramer’s sentences that stopped this from getting 5 out of 5. Nevertheless, an enjoyable, completely uninhibited read. Not for the faint hearted.

 

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Contact – Carl Sagan

Genre: Science Fiction

Narrative Structure: Third person, chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1985

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Ellie Arroway is a radio astronomer who has dedicated her life to the discovery of alien life. When radio-telescopes at the Project Argus pick up an unusual signal, she realises that this may be the message everyone has been waiting for.

Well, this was certainly an interesting read. Being written by an actual scientist made it quite different from any other science fiction I’ve read. (I’ve never been so glad to be reading something on my kindle. I had to keep looking up scientific terms.) It was also much less figurative than most novels. It was very focused and very unemotional. I don’t mean this in a bad way. It was very enjoyable but although there was some love interest for Ellie and somethings outside of the science were mentioned but they were not focused on and sometimes it felt like Sagan had forgotten about these elements. It was a little like reading a documentary about something that hadn’t happened yet. It was probably the most level headed novel I’ve ever read.

The story starts in Ellie’s childhood. She is an exceptionally gifted child, already curious about all things science. Sagan takes us through her school and university career as she becomes more and more interested in the possibility of a message from outer space. This leads her to the Argus Project and the unusual signal.

It becomes clear that the signal is the instructions for the building of a machine. Sagan takes the reader through the various arguments against building it – it could be a Trojan horse or it could be a doomsday machine. We get various religious arguments which are all given a respect I would have found it hard to give.

Indeed, this is not a novel about the divide between science and religion but is one in which the two are brought closely together. When the machine is built, the five top scientists from around the world are sent away in it and they are presented with a vision of the person they loved most in the world who explain to them about a universal message that is written in the physics of the universe. Ellie is told to look in pi but other scientists receive slightly different information. This final message brings together science and religion rather than driving them apart. God is given a scientific explanation.

I really enjoyed this novel. It was exciting. It showed what might happen if we received a message from intelligent aliens. (Although given the current governments in charge, I very much doubt such a calm response might occur these days.) Ellie was an engaging main character who neglected her family and lover due to her dedication to science. Sometimes it felt that Sagan neglected elements of the narrative for the same reasons but overall I would definitely recommend.

 

2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Challenge – The Return of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

Genre: British Detective, Classics, Short Stories

Narrative Style: First person, 

Rating: 4/5

Published:1904

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Sherlock Holmes has been missing, presumed dead, after his encounter with Moriaty on the Reichenbach Falls. In the first story of this collection, he reappears, much to the surprise of Watson, his trusty sidekick. Together, they solve five more mysteries of varying degrees of complication. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

Overall, I did enjoy this book but as always, whenever I read a Sherlock Holmes story, I have to overcome my irritation with the main character. Holmes is infuriatingly intelligent, able to spot things that most normal people don’t and always about three leaps ahead of everyone else. Unlike Watson, I don’t find these attractive attributes. I much prefer my detectives to be fallible – to be more human, in fact. But once you get over that – and Watson’s adoration which is also a little annoying – there is much to enjoy here.

The first story – which heralded Holmes reappearance – was perhaps the least satisfying. Holmes has information that Watson, Lestrade and the reader could not know. All that is left if for the reader is to admire Holmes’ abilities. Not much fun, to be honest.

The other four stories in this collection are all much more interesting and allow the reader to stretch their own powers of deduction a bit more. Indeed, I even worked out what one of the mysteries was. (Incidentally, I’m never sure if this pleases me or not. It shouldn’t be too easy to work out, nor too difficult. It’s a fine line or maybe I’m just difficult to please.)

The most enjoyable story was probably Black Peter. It was suitably twisty, it involved a policeman who jumped in the wrong direction, murder by harpoon and lots of cleverness from Sherlock including running through a pig with a harpoon to see how much strength it took.

Overall, I’m not a huge fan of short stories but they work nicely with detective stories. Obviously, if you have a full on police inquiry, you need a full novel but the quirky, interesting mysteries presented here are just complicated enough to sustain about 25 pages of text.

Alphabet Soup Challenge – Author Edition – G – Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Genre: Scottish Fiction, Allegory, Metafiction

Narrative Style: Non chronological, Third Person

Published: 1981

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Lanark can’t remember who he is or anything about his past. His most recent memory is a train journey which has brought him to Unthank, a place where the sun barely rises. He longs for the sunshine. He meets a group of people but is unable to connect with them. He longs for love but is unable to find it. Is there any way he can escape from Unthank?

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Challenge

I thought I’d enjoy this more than I did. In fact, for quite a bit, I thought this would be a five star read. I really enjoyed the first three books but then it felt as though it was never going to end. Maybe that was Gray’s problem – he couldn’t figure out how to finish things off.

The novel starts with Book Three and Lanark’s arrival in Unthank on a train. Anything before that is a mystery to him. Unthank is a land of darkness – the hours of sunshine are getting less and less. There is an entertaining episode where Lanark goes to register so he can get money which is Kafkaesque in its pillorying of bureaucracy. There are swipes at the authorial process when Lanark is encouraged to write by Sludden, one of a group of people who lounge around in a cafe all day, and then, after a painstaking description of the writing process, is told that what he has written is no good.

It is clear that Unthank is some sort of punishment – hell, maybe – for an incident in Lanark’s life before. This is supported by the fact that Lanark keeps asking women if he killed them. This becomes even more apparent when Lanark starts to develop dragonhide. (Other characters have equally weird ailments such as eyes or mouths all over their bodies.) He then finds himself in the Institute where once cured, he is made to become a doctor and cure others of the same ailment. When he manages to save a woman, he is given the chance to speak to an oracle and find out about his life before.

Now we are given Books One and Two – the life of Lanark before Unthank when he was Duncan Thaw. The style changes here. We are now given a – mostly – realistic portrait of a Scottish childhood and young adulthood. Thaw has always wanted to draw but finds he is thwarted in many ways. His parents want him to get a more sensible job. The focus is on money and living the same life that everybody else does which Thaw does not want. Even when he eventually gets to art college, he finds it provincial and depressing, pushing him towards a teaching career he does not want.

Thaw is prone to fits of depression, illness and hallucination. During one of these times, he may have killed a woman. As a result, he kills himself and this is how he has ended up in Unthank. Now, he is given the opportunity to leave the Institute and find a better future for himself and the woman he saved. But before any of that, he must return to Unthank.

This is where it started to go wrong for me. The allegory became increasingly complicated as did the satirising of bureaucracy. There were unending obstacles for Lanark. It ceased to be funny and clever, becoming annoying and increasingly post-modern. There is a section where Lanark meets the author of the novel and they argue over what the end of the novel should be. Included in this section are a series of footnotes giving all the other writers that have influenced the story, seemingly trying to head off any potential critics who pointed out allusions. All very clever, but not much fun to read.

By the end of this novel, I didn’t mind how it ended, just that it did. I was quite sympathetic towards Lanark in the beginning; by the end I was just hoping for his death and for it to be over.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – No Surrender by Constance Maud

Genre: Feminist, Political

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological

Rating: 2/5

Published: 1911

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Jenny Clegg is a mill girl in Lancashire when she gets involved with the Suffragette movement. The novel follows her and her friend Mary O’Neill through marches, prison and force feeding during their fight for the vote. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup: Author Edition

I first heard of this novel in the BBC Two program, Novels that Shaped Our World in November, last year. It sounded interesting so I downloaded it onto my kindle. I’d never read a novel about the suffragette movement before – indeed, I don’t think there are many – and so I was quite excited to read it. Unfortunately, it did not live up to my expectations.

The main issue with this novel is that it is purely political. So you might expect when dealing with such a subject but there is nothing else in this novel, no subplots, no romance and no other way of separating characters. The players in this novel are good or bad depending on whether or not they are for or against women’s suffrage. In a lot of cases, this is their only personality trait. On both sides of the argument this led to stereotypical and hollow representations. The suffragettes were all good, moral women and those against them often seemed ridiculous. No one ever wavered in their feelings – no suffragette anyway. Some of the disbelievers come across to the suffragette side.

Secondly, the majority of this novel is dialogue. Not only that but a lot of it is written in dialect which is often hard to decipher and did make me wonder if Maud had ever actually had much to do with the working classes. It made the reading experience jarring at times. All the dialogue also made the pace quite slow. There wasn’t much action, more people describing action.

There are good things – important things – in this book. It describes a lot of the reasons that women wanted the vote really clearly and shows the injustices that women – particularly working women – faced at that time. It described the force feeding of Mary O’Neil in detail and showed how badly the suffragettes were treated in prison. All of this is important historical detail but unfortunately it didn’t override the other issues with the novel.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishigoru

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1989

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Stevens, the butler from Darlington Hall, is allowed some holiday and takes a driving trip to see the former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who left the house some years earlier to get married. On his journey, he begins to think back over his time as butler and his relationship with Miss Kenton.

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup: Author Edition

I really enjoyed this book. I wasn’t sure whether I would or not as I’ve read two Ishiguro novels previously – When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go – and I didn’t particularly enjoy either of them. All three are quite different from each other though and as such, I was unprepared for the emotional effect of this one.

The novel begins as Stevens, a butler for many years at the prestigious Darlington Hall, begins a journey to see the former housekeeper. At first, he is preoccupied with the idea of what makes a good butler and the idea of dignity. He gives the first details of his relationship with Miss Kenton when he describes an exchange after she tried to bring flowers into his office, an act which clearly baffles him. It is clear to the reader – although seemingly not to Stevens – how Miss Kenton feels about him. She is often frustrated by him and seems determined to provoke some emotion in him.

This is a very subtle novel. Stevens does not discuss his own emotions and the reader has to read between the lines to understand how he feels about events. At one stage, Stevens praises his own sense of dignity when he manages to keep working on the evening that his father dies. It is heartbreaking to read. Stevens, also never seems to realise that Miss Kenton is constantly trying to make him step outside of his professional persona. However, it seems like there is no man underneath the persona, Stevens so perfectly personifies the role of butler.

The reader is also made to think about the nature of loyalty and the relationship between master and servant. Lord Darlington, it becomes apparent, is part of a faction that is fascist and anti-semitic and during the war, he holds conferences with the aim of appeasing Hitler. Stevens thinks that he is right to have remained loyal towards his master and refuses to think that Lord Darlington could have been wrong in his ideas. Even when he is instructed to fire two Jewish members of staff, he follows these orders without question. It is one of the times that he disagrees with Miss Kenton as she thoroughly disapproves of these actions and threatens to leave if Stevens carries them out. Miss Kenton presents an emotional counterpart to Stevens’ repressed and proper personality.

The ending of the book, when Stevens finally meets with Miss Kenton, was very sad as they both realise what their lives could have been like if they’d been able to admit their feelings to each other. At the very end, Stevens ends up crying when talking to a man about his employer, his only show of emotion in the whole book. This suggests perhaps, that Stevens will at last be able to acknowledge his emotions and perhaps gain more enjoyment from what remains of his life.

Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Paris Echo – Sebastian Faulks

Genre: Literary fiction, History, The effect of war

Narrative Style: two first person narrators

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2018

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Two very different visitors to Paris meet and end up sharing a house. Hannah is in Paris to research life for women during Paris’ occupation during the second world war. Tariq runs away from home to try and find some information about his mother who was French. They both come to a greater understanding of themselves through their interaction with the city. 

Writing Challenges: Alphabet Soup: Author Challenge

This didn’t grab me. A while ago, I decided that I ought to read more by authors where I’d read one book which I’d really enjoyed. About fifteen years ago, I read Birdsong. I don’t know why that didn’t lead me to read more of Faulks’  novels then. Anyway, hence reading Paris Echo.

There are a lot of interesting ideas in this novel – about history and its ongoing effect on the present, about personal and political views of events and about our sense of self. In fact, the transcriptions of the interviews with French women who lived through occupation were probably the most interesting part of this novel and I found myself wishing it was more straightforward historical fiction. I would definitely have been interested in reading more about these women.

The main problem is that the two main characters never came alive for me. Neither of them really convinced. It also seemed unlikely that Hannah would have just opened her door to Tariq. A lot of interesting things happen to Tariq – he sometimes feels like he is watching himself from the outside, he meets a woman who may or may not be a ghost – a woman he has seen in a vintage photo shown to him by Hannah. But he isn’t really all that interesting and at the end of the novel, he is back home with the same girlfriend, taking up his life with no real changes. He has learned things and is perhaps more observant but his basic character is unchanging.

Hannah is even less convincing. It seems that Faulks feels for her. He describes her vulnerability well but she doesn’t have much else going for her. She has been scarred by a a relationship ten years earlier and while she eventually feels strong enough to start a new relationship, it isn’t entirely obvious why this has happened.

So not exactly successful but definitely interesting. And it did make me think. Also, it reminded me of a period in history I would like to know more about. And that is always a good thing.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Survivor – Chuck Palahniuk

Genre: Satirical, anti-heroes

Narrative Style: Stream of consciousness, First person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1999

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: We meet Tender Branson as he has just hijacked a plane and is telling the sorry tale of his life to the black box recorder. He has let the crew and passengers go and has the length of time it takes for the fuel to run out to tell us of his life. What follows is a tragic tale of manipulation, fame, murder and suicide.

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

This is a very strange book. I had some idea what to expect – I’ve read Fight Club and Choke – but even so this is an odd read. For a start, it is numbered backwards and the chapters run down to one which makes it difficult to judge exactly where you are in the book. It also gives the feeling of running to a huge event which is apt given that we are waiting for the plane that Tender has hijacked to run out of fuel and crash.

We are thrown into the middle of Tender’s story with little context and at first it is a little confusing. Tender works as a servant and we gather that this is the fate of the majority of young people in the Creedish cult. They are sold as servants. allowed out into the outside world only because they’ve been convinced to never have sex by means not explained until near the end.

It transpires that Tender is a survivor of the mass suicide that has killed the rest of the cult. Even those who are already out in the world have been trained to obey this call to heaven so eventually Tender is the only one left. At this point, he comes to the attention of The Agent and is thrust into the limelight – once they have made him camera ready, of course.

Palahniuk takes aim at the media industry as they completely take over Tender’s life, treating him like a product rather than a person. He is consistently manipulated throughout the novel – first by the Creedish church and then by The Agent who has already planned out his entire life before he  even meets Tender. He was just waiting for the right body to put before the cameras.  The take down is savage and I felt a huge amount of sympathy for Tender especially when he is eventually rescued by his twin brother, Adam and his friend Fertility Hollis. Stripped bare of all routines, not being told what to do, he is unable to cope. He has been told what to do his whole life. Even when it comes  to hijacking the plane, Fertility has to push him in the right direction.

This was a very enjoyable read. It is easy to get used to the stream of consciousness style and the characters were well-drawn and interesting. The ending is open-ended so it is possible to believe in a happy ending should you want to. It is darkly funny in places, as you might expect from the writer of Fight Club but ultimately I felt a lot of sadness when reading it.

Strange Days Indeed

It seems like the world as we know it has ground to a halt. It is strange to think of everyone, all in their houses, streets empty (largely) and shops and pubs closed. It is three weeks now since I have been into the middle of Sheffield. Normally, I’d pass through most days.

I was on long term cover before but that is not continuing. So I’m at home with everyone else, trying to work out what being furloughed really means. My husband is also not working. No pubs means no beer needs to be brewed. Luckily, our house is big enough that if we get sick of each other or just want some quiet time then we can sit at opposite ends and not see each other for hours.

I’ve been trying to keep to a routine. To be honest, at the moment it just feels like an extended school holiday. As my husband isn’t a teacher, I would spend most of that time entertaining myself and keeping busy. I’m very much a creature of habit, even down to eating when I’d normally have my lunch at school so at the moment, I’m relatively content.

I have a lot of things to do. Editing, writing, reading are all being caught up on. It’s nice to have an unlimited time to read instead of the rushed 15 minutes or so I’d have while eating my breakfast. Having said that, I’d normally read on my kindle on my commute and I am kind of missing that. (Fancy missing being able to get on the bus – not something I ever thought I’d say.) Catching up with a lot of watching as well – Good Omens at the minute which is really enjoyable. If only the apocalypse was really so much fun.

Not to mention all the household jobs that need to be done and now we have the time to do them. I’m trying to vary my days so I do a little bit of everything each day so I don’t get bored and all the jobs aren’t done immediately.

The worst thing is the unknowable elements but at the minute I am able to ignore them quite successfully. I’m imagining it will be at least June before this is over. Worrying about further into the future will have to wait until then.